A Wheelchair User’s Guide to Getting a Massage

For most wheelchair users, a massage can be greatly beneficial and help with the aches and pains that come with sitting for long periods of time and using your shoulders and back to move. If you’ve been considering getting a massage for either pain management, as supplement to physical therapy, or simply for relaxation, this guide show you what to expect for your first massage and guide you through the process of choosing the right type of massage for your needs.

Do a Little Research

The first thing you want to do when researching where to get a massage is research the massage therapists that work at a given location and see what they specialize in. Most massage therapists will offer a basic Swedish massage, but many will often choose to specialize in treating specific types of strain or injuries (e.g., repetitive stress or sports).

What Type of Massage to Get

There are a lot of different massage types, but I’m only going to focus on three since those are the ones I have personal experience with: Swedish, hot stone, and deep tissue.

Swedish

This is your basic massage type and is great for folks that are either new to massage or are looking for a massage that focuses on relaxation (vs recovery).

Swedish with Hot Stones

A hot stone massage is a Swedish massage with the addition of heated stones that are applied to various muscle groups. The addition of heat means deeper penetration into the muscles and deeper relief/relaxation. Personally, I find the heat nice, but not worth the extra price.

Deep Tissue Massage

This massage is like a Swedish massage but with much more pressure/muscle penetration. I’m not gonna lie: it’s intense and not as relaxing as a Swedish or hot stone massage. I would only recommend this style if you’re trying to work through some kind of muscle discomfort or injury that a Swedish massage can’t quite reach.

Confirming Accessibility

Assuming that the place you’ve chosen has the standard accessibility features: ramp/elevator access, accessible restrooms, etc., the one thing you want to verify is that the height of the massage table is adjustable. That way, the massage therapist can lower it so it’s easier for you to climb onto.

Know Your Goals and Ask Questions

Everyone goes to a massage therapist for different reasons. Some folks are looking for symptom relief from a chronic injury, other folks are hoping to prevent strain and improve their athletic performance, and some folks just find it relaxing. Whatever your reasons, it’s important that you clearly explain those goals to your massage therapist before your first session. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially if this is your first time using a massage therapist. Trust me: they want you to be as comfortable as possible and to enjoy the experience. If you have questions or concerns, ask them. If there’s a particular area you would like them to focus on or avoid, let them know.

Be Honest About Your Medical History

The first time you meet with a massage therapist, they’re going to ask you to fill out a questionnaire about your health/medical history. You don’t need to be extremely detailed, but you do need to be clear about your surgical history, medical conditions (like diabetes), and any allergies or sensitivities you might have (e.g., essential oils). These will help the massage therapist guarantee a relaxing and, more importantly, safe experience.

What to Expect During the Massage

Let me get this out of the way up front: you’re gonna be naked. Like, I know you’ve heard rumors of places providing paper underwear or some such nonsense, but the reality is you’re gonna be stark naked under a couple of very cozy sheets. I’ll be honest: the whole naked with a stranger thing kinda weirded me out at first, but it really is important. The more muscle groups the massage therapist can reach, the more effective the massage will be. With that out of the way, let’s walk through what to expect from your first massage experience.

After discussing your needs and goals with the massage therapist, they’ll leave the room and give you time to undress and get onto the table and under the sheets, usually face down. When the massage therapist returns, they’ll ask you a few quick questions: are you warm enough, are you comfortable, and is the head/face rest in the right position? This last bit is the most important: you don’t want your head to be at an uncomfortable angle. Once everything is in place, the massage will begin.

During the massage, close your eyes and try to relax. Take deep breaths. Depending on your mental state/mental health needs, I suggest you either let your mind drift or you focus on staying in the moment and concentrate on how your body feels and what the massage therapist is doing.

When the massage is over and you’ve gotten dressed, the massage therapist will bring you a glass of water (drink it!) and review the massage with you as well as talk about anything you could do to help improve any issues you might be having (e.g., do some stretches). This will also be where payment and (potentially) scheduling a follow‐up session will happen.

Stick with the Same Masseuse

If you like the massage therapist, I highly recommend you stick with them and use them for each massage session you schedule. That way, you’re guaranteed to have a consistent experience as well as have someone who is familiar with your body and your needs.

Notes for Folks with Cerebral Palsy

Don’t be afraid to ask your massage therapist to focus on areas that have the most spasticity. This may be your hands, calves, or thighs. I promise that, given enough sessions, you’ll start to see an improvement in your flexibility and tension. If you’re worried about your startle reflex being triggered, don’t be. Once the massage begins, the therapist is very rarely going to break contact with your body. This will ensure that you won’t have a reaction due to the sudden presence or absence of someone touching you. And as far as noise levels go, there’s going to be a lot of white noise and possibly some soft music that will help drown out anything that might cause you to twitch.

Notes for Folks With Hydrocephalus

Let the massage therapist know about your shunt and shunt cord. It’s not a big deal, I promise. Just tell them that they might feel a bump or lump on your head/chest and to try and avoid those areas when applying pressure.

Notes for Folks Who Have Had a Rhizotomy

You might be worried about your foot sensitivity during a massage. The good news is that the pressure the massage therapist is strong and consistent enough that it won’t cause a spastic reaction. However, if you do experience any discomfort during the massage, don’t be afraid to let the massage therapist know.

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